The Shoestring process

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The process

The Shoestring approach is designed for any small-to-medium company that wants to start taking advantage of digitalisation, but doesn’t know where to start, and possibly isn’t ready to allocate much digital budget. 

Shoestring provides a quick step-by-step approach from identifying a company’s business needs right through to deploying an affordable digital solution that brings immediate efficiencies in the workplace. And once a company is happy with the Shoestring solution, having successfully set up their own pilot, they can then either role the solution out further, across more facilities for example, or add on more solutions to address their other business needs.

Companies can start the process by contacting us to apply for an online in-company specification workshop which will highlight their company’s business priorities, and match these to a Shoestring solution.

Register your interest or email contact@digitalshoestring.net

Step 1: Identifying the digital need 

The Shoestring process usually beings with an in-company workshop which facilitates focussed discussions between three to four senior managers. These can take place online or in-person (depending on COVID-19 restrictions). 

These ‘specification workshops’ last around four hours and provide an opportunity for senior managers to discuss their business needs and the challenges the company and employees face, what would ease their workload, and which changes would be simplest to implement.

Once a shortlist of three business needs have been identified the managers then choose the one which would be quickest to address with a Shoestring digital solution. 

Step 2: Finding a digital solution

By using an online Shoestring specification workshop, guided by a Shoestring researcher or consultant, companies then work through the challenges they face which are then matched to Shoestring digital solution areas such as process monitoring or job tracking. 

A series of evaluation exercises enables participants to rank their top three challenges, so that they can prioritise which one will be easiest to implement. In the second part of the workshop, a more detailed analysis provides a full specification for the chosen solution area, which in turn will deliver a Bill of Materials listing all the off-the-shelf technology required as well as a specification for the software output. 

Solutions can incorporate an ever-growing range of off-the-shelf devices, such as cameras, temperature sensors, scanners with low-cost computers, such as Raspberry Pi, and openly available data integration and analysis software programmes. 

Each solution is designed so that it can work alongside other Shoestring solutions, making it possible to add to each affordable solution incrementally. This enables the company to experiment with a digital solution, learn along the way, and keep experimenting by adding more Shoestring solutions. 

You can see some of the Shoestring solutions that have been trialled in real-world companies as well as some of the demonstrators that the researchers have built:

  • Part identification and tracking
  • Augmented reality status viewer
  • Machine monitoring
  • Voice assisted assembly
  • Touchscreen CNC router

Step 3: Implementing the solution 

Once the digital needs assessment is done, the Shoestring portal configures the Bill of Materials, outputs the configured software and delivers instructions on how to install the solution.

Shoestring researchers can help with installation and testing, depending on the level of in-house technical expertise. Since last year, on-site visits have not always been possible, so researchers have successfully provided online support. 

The necessity to help manufacturers remotely has made companies realise that there is a surprising amount of technical expertise, and enthusiasm, already within their companies. Shoestring has effectively provided a digital leadership tool, helping senior managers to harness and develop existing expertise. 

Some recent industry pilots have also involved third party solution providers and consultants, who can use the Shoestring tools to help their customers or other Shoestring partner companies, adopt low-cost digital solutions.

Detailed instructions and training materials accompany each stage of the Shoestring process. In addition a series of short training courses are being devised to train up individuals to run Shoestring requirements workshops, in-company specification workshops as well as to use the Shoestring portal which delivers the solutions. The portal is built using a building block approach to programming so that no prior technical knowledge is required, and once trained users can deploy ready-made Shoestring solutions, and adapt existing solutions to fit unique company specifications.

Digital skills

Shoestring is designed to encourage people to use and develop their technical digital skills in manufacturing. 

The Shoestring approach provides managers with a leadership tool, which uncovers and develops digital expertise amongst their staff. By implementing the needs assessment, workshop managers can tease out the company’s business priorities from senior staff and then, using the Shoestring digital solutions catalogue, match each top priority identified with the relevant digital solutions area. 

The catalogue and the Shoestring portal give employees, keen to develop and use their technology skills, a step-by-step framework to start digitalising their non-core operations. 

Will Bridgman, Chairman of Warren Services, which manufactures precision components and mechanical and electrical sub-assemblies, is excited by the potential of Shoestring: “Those taking part in the process become more confident in what digital solutions can offer in terms of the company’s investment, which will lead to productivity improvements and also the upskilling of those working in industry.”

Shoestring’s potential as a project-based learning tool has also been recognised by education providers in Scotland and Northern Ireland who are looking at how they can incorporate Shoestring in their teaching material. The programme is also ideal for use with apprenticeship schemes.

Roddy Scott, Sector Manager for ESP Scotland, which works to build capacity to deliver skills for the energy, engineering and construction sectors by collaborating with Scotland’s colleges and industry partners, explains the value of the project to the education sector: “Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring is a great fit for us because it is helping us inspire young people to come into STEM. It helps build skills, knowledge and capacity.”

Contact us at contact@digitalshoestring.net to find out how Shoestring could upskill your employees or be used in project-based digital learning schemes. 

Industry case studies

So far, 16 prototype Shoestring solutions have been created, eight of which are being built and tested in an industrial setting. These ‘tried and tested’ solutions are ready for companies to take ‘off-the-shelf’ and use themselves, with the option of support from Shoestring. 

Below are examples from companies who have tried and tested Shoestring solutions: 

Buchanan Orthotics (job tracking) 

One company keen to explore how digitalisation could help improve productivity is family-run manufacturer Buchanan Orthotics, which makes modular, bespoke and specialist footwear for clients such as the NHS.

After working alongside the Shoestring team to assess needs and develop a solution that easily bolts onto their operations, the company is now piloting a job tracking solution. 

‘Buchanan has worked with the Shoestring team to outline and identify a project which is now at the pilot stage, and the potential benefit to the company will be significant, without the impact of major capital investment,’ says Ryan Currie, Buchanan’s commercial manager.

Where the company previously used a paper sheet to track orders through the system, low-cost scanners are now being used to digitise the location and status of jobs. This cross-site job tracking pilot enables workers to print tracking labels, record when a job enters and leaves the facility using barcode scanning, and then store all these records centrally in the cloud, so that live job progress can be viewed at any time.

This simple but effective solution demonstrates the combination of openly available and other low-cost off-the-shelf software technologies to collect and record typical manufacturing activities observed on a shopfloor. Management is able to see where all the jobs are in the queue and how they are progressing; ensure no orders are lost or misplaced; identify capacity issues for technicians; advise customer job status; and see jobs close to completion.